16 June 2011

Like Karate or Hsing-I / Crowbar or Ball-on-Chain?

Apparently Bruce Lee once described the difference between strikes in Karate versus the strikes in Kung-Fu as follows: “a Karate punch is like being hit with a crowbar, while a Gongfu punch is like being hit by a metal ball on the end of a chain.” I have not been able to confirm this quotation, but the idea is vivid enough and serves the purpose of this post, which is to ask the question: “Does ITF Taekwon-Do hit like Karate (i.e. like a crowbar) or like Hsing-I or Tai-Chi Quan (i.e. a ball on a chain)?"

The ball-on-chain method is, of course, what is known in the Chinese internal styles as fajin 發勁. (Balgeong 발경 in Korean.) It is described by one martial artist as “impulse” or the “explosive transfer of momentum” and by another as “impact.”

I can think of at least two differences when being hit by a crowbar versus being hit by a ball on a chain. The first is the structural integrity of the crowbar. When the iron rod hits you, it does not change form. It stays hard and rigid. On the other hand, the chain to which the ball is attached does not have the structural integrity of the iron rod. As the ball is swung toward the target the chain might be stretched erect and give the illusion of it being a rigid structure, but once the ball has hit the target and the momentum that kept the chain erect is transferred into the target, the chain collapses. Secondly, the crowbar seems to stay connected to the target longer than the iron ball. After the iron ball hits the target its force is transferred into the target and the ball merely drops. The crowbar, on the other hand, is more likely to continue moving with the target; as if, in a sense, pushing the target or it might bounce off the target. True, the ball might also bounce off, but it is more likely to just drop down. Imagine the correctly played white snooker ball that comes to a quick halt after it hits the other ball as most of its momentum is transferred into the other ball; or Newton's collision ball phenomenon. (These latter examples do not really visualize the essence of balgyeong, which is more concerned with transferring energy into the target, rather than through the target.)

So which is it for ITF Taekwon-Do, crowbar or ball-on-chain?

Well, let's look at refer to the ITF Encyclopaedia in search of the answer. In the section on Concentration in the Theory of Power we find the following statement: “the shorter the time for the concentration, the greater will be the power of the blow” (Vol. 2, p. 20). Another section in the Encyclopaedia concerning attacking techniques states the following: “The moment the attacking tool reaches the target, pull it back . . .” (Vol. 3, p. 17). The attacking tool does not spend unnecessary time on the target. Once the momentum is transferred, it is pulled-back. Regarding punching the Encyclopaedia says that one should: “Avoid unnecessary tension of the arms and shoulders” and “Relax the muscles immediately after the fist has reached the target” (Vol. 3, p. 29).

In other words, the attacking tool acts more like a ball-on-chain, very quickly transferring its momentum into the target and immediately “relaxing” afterwards. The structure is not kept like a crowbar, but instead it relaxes like a ball-on-chain. Techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do also adhere to the principle of kinetic chaining where the “hip is jerked slightly before the action in order to concentrate the larger muscles of the hip and abdomen together with the smaller muscles of the four extremities against the target simultaneously.” This, of course happens sequentially. For example, in a punch, first the hips rotates towards the target, then the shoulders, then the arm is snapped forward—all of this is preceded by motion from the legs based on the “knee spring”—forming one continuous kinetic chain.

If fajin / balgyeong can be defined as kinetic chaining with emphasis on the quick transferal of momentum—impulse or impact—into the target, achieved by relaxed movements before and directly after the blow, then I believe ITF Taekwon-Do more closely follow the ball-on-chain method than the crowbar method. In other words, an ITF Taekwon-Do punch is more like a Hsing-I Quan punch than a Karate punch.

It is important to remember that this has not always been (and in a sense is still not always) the case. Taekwon-Do's father is Shotokan Karate and in the early days of Taekwon-Do the movements very much resembled Karate. The real change towards this balgyeong way of moving occurred later in ITF Taekwon-Do's evolution (I'm guessing the early 80s) even though the principles (i.e. Theory of Power) were set to paper from quite early on.

However, the observant practitioner will discover that ITF Taekwon-Do does not utilise the balgyeong method exclusively. ITF Taekwon-Do seems to be using both the ball-on-chain and the crowbar, depending on the technique. The turning kick, for instance, works on the ball-on-chain principle, while the spinning reverse turning kick (not the reverse hook kick) is based on the crowbar principle. The basic front punch employs the ball-on-chain method while the ridge-hand strike uses the crowbar method. The front snap kick is ball-on-chain; the front pushing kick is crowbar. The twisting kick, ball-on-chain; the downward kick, crowbar. And the side-piercing kick can be performed either on the ball-on-chain principle or on the crowbar principle, depending on the desired effect.

Although there has been an evolution in how ITF Taekwon-Do approaches power generation, it has not completely thrown off its Shotokan Karate heritage. It would seem that power generation in ITF Taekwon-Do is situational; sometimes used typically Karate ways of power generation, other times using balgyeong. The determining factor is usually the technique employed, but could also be the effect desired. What is significant, however, is that some of the most iconic Karate-like movements, for instance the walking stance front fore fist punch or the low forearm block, doesn't strictly employ the same Karate-like mechanics any more.


Jay said...

The Bruce Lee quote comes from this interview/screen test from the '60's... we also hear the blossoming 'be like water' theory and see a few moves...


Skip to around 2:20 for the quote.

Skryfblok said...

Jay, thank you for this. Much appreciated!

Ymar Sakar said...

I've actually heard that there are three types of power transfered in strikes.

The push through type power seen where people get moved a lot, but the force transfer is slow. The shock type power where people drop where they are. Then the third type of power, internal power, is kind of a combination of the first two.

SooShimKwan said...

The first two types seem to be mutually exclusive; however, it may be possible to "charge" these types with "internal" power. I'll definitely think about this a little more.